It's the inalienable right of any good psychological thriller to mislead its audience. There's no surer way to make viewers feel like participants in an intricate and tension-filled story. But it's a rare film — such as Park Chan-wook's spellbinding The Handmaiden — that keeps us engaged for nearly two and a half hours by repeatedly undermining our perception of events unfolding on screen.
It takes little more than five minutes for The Handmaiden to play its first trick on unsuspecting audiences. What begins as a particular type of film turns out to be something else entirely, and even that major shift represents merely a partial truth. The film's only purpose seems to be our full submission to the strange pleasures of its lush and mysterious world.
Ostensibly the story of a con man and a petty thief who try to steal a vast fortune from an innocent heiress, The Handmaiden presents a romantic and erotically charged tale of intrigue and suspense masquerading as a mild-mannered period drama. Best known for the noirish violence of his Vengeance trilogy (which includes the cult favorite Oldboy), Park in this film mixes familiar genres like a master chef blending flavors in his favorite kitchen.
Based on British writer Sarah Waters' award-winning Victorian-era crime novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden transposes Waters' story to 1930s Korea, then under Japanese rule. A wealthy and well-connected collector of rare books has raised his sister's niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), at his secluded mansion in hopes of eventually marrying the girl for her inherited wealth.
Learning of the wealthy patron's plans, a con artist (Ha Jung-woo) assumes the identity of raconteur Count Fujiwara and mounts a yearslong campaign to infiltrate Hideko's hidden world and steal both her heart and her fortune for himself. Needing inside help to pull off his elaborate scheme, the count enlists young pickpocket Sook-hee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) to become Hideko's handmaiden. But things are not necessarily as they seem.
The Handmaiden is divided into three parts to allow a full rendering of the story as filtered through the varied perspectives of its characters. But the result is not a Rashomon-like tale of contradictory views of shared events. Park doles out essential information as needed to undercut our false assumptions about his carefully drawn characters. His methods allow the film's playful and mischievous nature to shine through as the element of surprise continually reinforces the film's seductive charms.
The film's visual style is as meticulous as its storytelling. Park paired digital cameras with antique widescreen lenses, capturing every gorgeous detail of the film's ornate sets and costumes. Far from overwhelmed by their lavish surroundings, the cast never misses a beat, even as allegiances and motivations constantly shift beneath their feet.
Without giving too much away, it's safe to describe The Handmaiden's story as one of rare female empowerment — a quality seldom associated with typically male-dominated crime movies in this or any era. But Park seems deeply aware of cinematic tradition while keeping himself free of its restrictions. He's made a dazzling film that defies expectation and surely will rank among the year's best.